Hard Times

#GenderWeek: The delusion of choice

By Lynne Segal

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Like Charlotte I get irritable when I hear about feminism and freedom and choice, although not for exactly the same reasons. No, I don’t wear stilettos firstly because – quite apart from the fact that they’d hurt my feet and give me painful bunions, just like my mother had – I instantly fall over. Even if I could stay upright, as Charlotte suggests, I’d feel a tad silly wearing my feminist badges while wobbling about in them.

I’m a little more devious, and feminism did encourage me to be somewhat more rebellious in how to dress. I didn’t burn it, but I’ve never worn a bra, even if I know I’ve always chosen to add just a little height to my five foot four inches (platforms will do that nicely) and have routinely worn just a little make-up, trying to look quite as ‘sexy’ and attractive as I can manage  – although not just to please men.

But I don’t feel too strongly about couture – haute, bass, or even crass – and I suspect that once-upon-a-time we women’s liberationists were rather excluding of some more timid souls in imposing a certain type of dress code. Flowered smocks and dungarees were for a long time the favourite attire: forget high-heels, a woman arriving at a feminist meeting in skirt and twin-set might find it hard to relax and fit in.

The issue of ‘choice’ annoys me because most of us, and many women in particular, have so very little of it – and indeed, less all the time. Last year I was asked to discuss ‘the tyranny of choice’, on the supposition that nowadays we suffer from having too much it. Can you believe it? Now that really is infuriating. On every important issue: where to live; what jobs are available; the length of the working day, if we have jobs; how to avoid being the objects of sexist abuse or violence; having the time and resources to choose to have a child, should we wish to; being able to care for our loved ones, when they are young, old, or for any slew of reasons, are in need of care – all these are choices that are so very hard, almost impossible, for the majority of women to make in ways we would like to.

All this is a feminist issue. The very mention of ‘free-choice’ feminism by the likes of Louise Mensch and other ‘Tory feminists’ (who believe that women hold themselves back from the top jobs) is for the most part absurd. Top jobs? Young women coming out of university are very lucky if they can get any job at all. If in work, the precarious nature of most jobs today and the ever-stretching working day, leave almost no time for attending to all the work of caring, loving and building communities we want to live or raise children in.

I am similarly irritated by accusations of feminism’s complicity with neoliberalism, made by certain older feminists such as Nancy Fraser, because of our supposed embrace of ‘choice’. Yes, we did want the right to reproductive choice, and all sorts of other resources for creating more egalitarian and nurturing environments for all. But despite all our campaigning – some of it successful – what we have ended up with, by and large, is the opposite.

Most women, much of the time, have no choice at all over all the important issues in their life; which of course has little to do with either make-up or foot-wear. This lack of choice, especially for women caring for children or other dependents, has left many women much more vulnerable to domestic violence. And, with women still largely doing the caring jobs in society, whether paid or unpaid, it is women above all who are hardest hit by the austerity policies of recent years. A recent Labour Party document on older women reported that unemployment amongst older women has increased by 41 per cent in the last two and a half years, compared with one per cent overall.

The majority of women have much too little choice about how to live our lives. The fetishisation of choice is all about equating the private and privatised with ‘freedom and choice’; the public, the collective, the community, the nationalised, with ‘constraint and imposition’. Yet it is precisely in the private arena, and above all because of the rolling back of welfare and the spending of resources in the public sector, that women today actually have so little choice.

Feminists worth their salt have always known this, yet it is quite extraordinary how successful Thatcher, and all those trailing her legacy, have been in selling people delusion of ‘choice’. Let’s go back to basics. Over two centuries ago, one of our greatest foremothers, Mary Wollstonecraft in a A Vindication of the Rights of Women, knew then that was that it was no good merely talking about rights or freedom of choice. As a woman, she knew that what we need to talk about was not just rights, or choice, but equality, insisting that “the more equality there is established” among us, “the more virtue and happiness will reign in society”.

Choice is an irritating concept without that feminist imagination that tells us more about the societies we want to live in and how best to head towards them. With this government in command, we seem to moving further away from the possibilities for true virtue or happiness every day.

Lynne Segal is a feminist writer and activist, and Anniversary Professor of Psychology & Gender Studies at Birkbeck, University of London.

Photo source.

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